Monday, January 12, 2009

Catching up with SYNECDOCHE NEW YORK

SYNECDOCHE NEW YORK (dir. Charlie Kaufman, US, 2008, 124 mins.) has been playing as something of a cult feature here in San Francisco for several months now, and I FINALLY caught up with it! I am surprised it has taken me this long as I am something of a die hard Charlie Kaufman fan. However, I found it to be worth the wait (unlike my friends, JimmyD and Gretchen, who accompanied me). It is one of his least accessible works, nearly reaching David Lynch-esque levels of surrealism. However, once I found "the key", and it doesn't appear until well over 90 minutes into the over two hour film, I was able to relax and settle into it. The experience up until that point was fantastic, at best and confusing and frustrating at its worst. It is a challenging work that requires enough attention to detail to pull it together at its climax, yet the more concentration you give it, the more frustrated you may become with the disassociated imagery and chaotic time line. Because the heart of the piece, the reality, is so removed from the surface plot, this gives Kaufman an unusual amount of freedom from the constraints of continuity. Moments, events, even physical scars that appear in one scene, will be forgotten or vanish in the next. But those moments signify not only the passage of time, but the extent of the imagination involved in creating them. It is a difficult film to speak about without giving away a spoiler. However, the general synopsis that is "out there" describes the film as the conflict that a playwright has between the real world and the drama, and that is the most honest way to describe it, while saving the answer to the puzzle. Mind you, if you are a viewer who does not enjoy having to think your way through a maze of plotting, then you are not going to like this one bit. But if you can sit back and accept the conflicting and illogical events as they happen, and yet concentrate enough while waiting for the brief instant of revelation, I think you would find this to be rewarding. It would also explain the cult status it appears to be achieving. I can easily see why an audience would view the film again with the knowledge of how the pieces all fit together, or are so attracted to it, as to attempt to figure it out on repeated screenings. It is not unlike the "mystery" that surrounds DONNIE DARKO, in which the plot lends itself to extensive discussion.

If the plot is leaving you cold, then I believe the performances will no doubt keep you involved. Kaufman has cast a HUGE group of A-Level independent film performers, led by Philip Seymour Hoffman (of course!), and featuring Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Wiest, Emily Watson, Robin Weigert, Michelle Williams, Amy Wright and a rare screen appearance by the always quirky Tom Noonan! In fact, watching the cast maneuver through the kaleidoscopic script is almost as much of a wonder as following what is going on, in the first place. Hoffman gives his typically, "Mr. Cellophane" characterization, which one might find a bit annoying. Samantha Morton is absolutely incredible in her decades defying performance. The film focuses most of its attention on that relationship, while the army of characters drift in and out, not unlike the settings.

The production design is particularly whimsical, in retrospect. As viewed, it rings false or ridiculous, which can be a bit distracting, regardless of its dramatic integrity by the end of the film. The makeup design, particularly for Morton, is fantastic! The cinematography could have a bit more definition between the various realities that are involved in the plot. However, that is just a judgment call on my part, as that could have led to even more confusion.

For my taste, however, it is a definite keeper!

FYI: The definition of "Synecdoche": a figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole (as fifty sail for fifty ships), the whole for a part (as society for high society), the species for the genus (as cutthroat for assassin), the genus for the species (as a creature for a man), or the name of the material for the thing made (as boards for stage)

Maxxxxx says
re SYNECDOCHE NEW YORK: "Sweet sweet eye juice!"


Gretchen said...

I think you were far too kind.

JimmyD said...

I enjoyed the incredible cast and I did enjoy it for the most part. If anything, it's fascinating. I just wasn't in the mood for another 'Inland Empire.' Oh: Hi Gretchen! Nice to see you here!!